Saturday, December 17, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Strange Visitors" (October 23, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Strange Visitors,” Tarzan awakens one night to a strange sound (actually, the sound effect for Star Trek’s transporter).

He learns the next day that apes appear to have been abducted from the jungle.  He teams with an anthropologist, Jill Eddington, to discover what is happening.

Tarzan and Jill soon encounter a force-field in the jungle, and a robot in the shape of a cheetah. Before long, Tarzan and Jill discover a grounded flying saucer.  It is the size of a city, and travels from world to world.

The aliens in the saucer have come to the jungle to capture specimens and return them to their homework. The leader, Dr. Krolar, wants to take Tarzan back as well. One of his students, Leesa, however, realizes that Tarzan and the other animals should be free.

Tarzan escapes and demonstrates his superior intelligence by saving Krolar from the equivalent of a heart attack, performing CPR on him.

This is a fun episode of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976), introducing alien life forms to Tarzan’s domain.  There are some remarkable moments in the episode, from the discovery of a force field to scenes of Tarzan evading alien vehicles and technology.

Our lesson of the week -- and since this is Filmation, there is always a lesson of the week -- is spoken by Tarzan. He reports that it is wrong to look down on others.  And it is good to have new friends, and freedom, instead of prisoners. 

The lesson is organic to the events of the episode, and fascinating in terms of the franchise history.  More than once in Tarzan’s history, after all, invaders from the outside world have arrived in the jungle to capture animals and bring them back to “civilization.” 

This time, those invaders are literally from an outside world…from another planet all together. 

I also appreciated the mystery aspects of the episode, with Tarzan and Jill investigating an oddity: flashes of light and the disappearance of jungle denizens.  The mystery deepens as Tarzan grapples with an uncooperative animal, a jungle cat, that turns out to be a robot, a creation of the aliens.

This story also is a nice break from last week’s continuity-heavy story, which required us to remember about fifteen names, of cities, people, and so forth. I needed a score card to keep up.

Next week: “Tarzan and the Land of the Giants.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Goodbye, Packy" (October 4, 1975)

In “Goodbye, Packy,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) learns from the Elders that soon he will have an opportunity to “be a real hero,” and help someone who has “tampered with nature.”  The wise Elders also inform him that “nature never breaks its own rules.”

Billy comes to understand the meaning of these words when he and Mentor help a girl, Kathy Rose (Shannon Terhone) contend with her beloved -- but dangerous -- pet wolf, Packy.

Kathy is reluctant to let her beloved pet return to the wild, but Packy can no longer safely live as a pet, either.

In the 1970s, Filmation was the king of tear-jerker Saturday morning shows about children losing beloved pets. 

In “Yesteryear,” D.C. Fontana’s brilliant contribution to Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973), for instance, a young Spock had to contend with the death of his pet sehalt (a giant teddy bear/saber-toothed tiger).

Shazam’s “Goodbye, Packy” doesn’t (fortunately) feature the death of a beloved pet, but it does concern a girl having to say farewell to her pet wolf, who is no longer safe in domestic situations.  Packy is at home neither in the wild, nor at home, and so must be rehabilitated before being released into a nearby forest.

The idea here is teaching children to put the welfare of the pet ahead of their own desires. Packy deserves a happy life, and though Kathy wants that for him, she also doesn't want to lose him.

Naturally, Kathy runs away with Packy rather than surrender him. Through a series of accidents, the duo end up trapped on a hot air balloon in-flight. This plight, of course, requires Captain Marvel to come to the rescue.

In the end, rather unconvincingly, Kathy gets over Packy when her father brings her home a puppy.  

Next week: “Speak No Evil.”

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Night Strangler (1973)

The TV-movie sequel to the 1971 hit The Night Stalker finds our hero, downtrodden reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) in Seattle, Washington -- still trying to sell his incredible story about vampires in Las Vegas.

In a dingy bar one night, his former editor Tony Vincenzo hears him making his case, and -- taking pity on the guy -- hires Kolchak as a reporter at Seattle's Daily Chronicle (run by John Carradine!) Of course, (and Vincenzo knows this...) he's just asking for trouble bringing Carl Kolchak aboard.

For before long, Carl has run smack into another bizarre, perhaps even supernatural case. Several beautiful belly dancers have been murdered (strangled...) in the Pioneer Square Area of the city. A little research reveals that women have been attacked there, in that very spot, every 21 years. There were crimes in 1952, 1931, 1910, 1889 and 1868. Interestingly, the murders in 1868 took place before a massive earthquake, in a portion of the town now underground.

Kolchak's quest to find the perpetrator of these horrid crimes leads to a scientist once interviewed by Mark Twain, named Richard Malcolm (Richard Anderson). It seems this man was a Union Soldier in the Civil War and has been keeping himself alive ever since with a home-made "elixir of life" consisting of milk, meat, hair...and blood extracted from the necks of healthy women! 

Karl ventures into the old underground city to confront this nearly immortal (and clearly psychotic...) man, and ends the reign of terror once and for all. Of course, Karl gets fired for interfering with the police; and this time his editor Vincenzo gets fired too. Together, the two bickering friends drive out of Seattle together, hoping for a better future in New York.

The Night Strangler, written by the incomparable Richard Matheson, is not quite in the class of The Night Stalker, perhaps because at times it feels like a note-for-note repetition of the original TV movie, with Kolchak running up against bull-headed, CYA-type authorities (mayors, policemen, bureaucrats...) while he works to solve a supernatural case. 

What's so interesting this time is Matheson's decision to feature a scientific, rather than supernatural explanation for the crimes. The monster is still a vampire (one who strangles his victims), but one who operates via science, not biology. Seen as bookends, the two tele-movies make interesting sides of the same coin, even if the original isn't quite as good as the original.

I also love the idea of a forgotten, subterranean existing beneath a modern one. It's sort of a perfect reflection of Kolchak's world. There's the surface world which appears normal, and the night-time world of monsters.

Watching The Night Strangler, I began to crystallize the reasons I love Darren McGavin's portrayal of Kolchak so much. This reporter wears white sneakers, you may notice if you watch the telefilms and TV episodes. Not much is said about this, but these are running shoes, worn because Kolchak is always running after a story. I just love that small, little detail; that Kolchak wears the same suit and hat, but also the very shoes that help him track down interviewees during an investigation.

The Night Strangler also makes clear just what an influence Kolchak was on The X-Files

The story of an immortal killer, needing infusions of new life (by murder...) every twenty one years, reminded me instantly of a first season episode called "Squeeze," the first part of the Tooms saga wherein a strange serial killer needs to eat the livers of healthy humans. The idea of elongating life; of a killer coming out of shadows every few decades; and the skepticism of the police are common features between The Night Strangler and the adventures of Mulder and Scully.

I also got a real kick out of The Night Strangler's humorous finale, with Vincenzo and Kolchak hollering at each other over every little detail. Despite all the yelling, it's clear that they are best buddies. And that, quite nicely, is an element continued in the TV series.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Films of 1980: Death Watch

An obscure science fiction film that was lost, and then found after a 2012 DVD re-release, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980) is a beautifully-made, thoughtful motion picture about a (future?) age in which everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame…whether they want it or not.

Shot in and around Glasgow, Death Watch is based on the 1973 novel The Unsleeping Eye (or The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe) by David Compton. The premise involves a near-future world in which new surgical techniques make it unlikely that anyone will die of disease or illness. 

Because of this fact, the public has largely become “distanced” from death and mortality. 

Accordingly, NTV network Vincent Ferrihan launches a reality TV series called “Death Watch” wherein people can tune in to see a real person succumb to illness and death over weeks, if necessary. 

Vincent views the program as a kind of public service to keep people anchored to the concept of death.

Others see the program as a moral obscenity, and an invasion of privacy.

As this premise clearly indicates, Death Watch concerns the boundary between private and public lives, and raises the possibility that TV is a kind of bread-and-circus distraction from other, more important issues.  

Although the movie doesn’t delve deeply into the future society’s underpinnings, it seems a remarkably unhappy place, especially since death is all-but conquered.  

What, then, accounts for the desire to invade the privacy of another?  The movie doesn't provide many specific answers, except perhaps, those to be found in the vicissitudes of human nature.  In the end, we may simply all be....voyeurs.

As you can guess, Death Watch's theme is not irrelevant in today's world of CCTV, and the so-called "surveillance state."  

Elegiac and intimate, Death Watch plays out in restrained, human fashion, eschewing special effects and even caustic satire to dramatize its emotionally affecting tale of two characters who come to know each other under a difficult, even impossible situation.

“This lady won’t die easily for us, Vince.”

Death Watch focuses on one woman -- the lively and passionate Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) -- who is informed by her doctor that she is dying, and then, under pressure from the press and paparazzi, is basically forced to participate in a reality-TV show about the situation.

Katherine refuses to play along (even after signing a contract) and flees the city, but Death Watch's producer, Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton), has one final trick up his sleeve.

He has surgically-implanted highly-advanced cameras inside the eyes of an experienced camera-man, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), and, then secretly arranged for him to accompany Katherine on a journey to visit her ex-husband (Max Von Sydow). 

Katherine is unaware that that her new “friend” is filming her every moment, her every reaction.  As she weakens, she comes to cherish Roddy's fellowship, never suspecting his terrible betrayal. However, Roddy finds it more and more difficult to continue, and to live with what he is doing.

Meanwhile, the nation watches the reality-show in avid interest, hanging on every moment of Katherine's decline.

“Not everything has to mean something.”

First and foremost, Death Watch concerns the dangers of technology. If people can have cameras implanted in their eyes -- without your knowledge -- how can you ever know that they are who they say they are? Or that they are in your life for the reasons they claim?  

What if they are just recording a reality show, taking your most secret and treasured moments away with them?

Katherine is betrayed in the film by society and by Vincent too, but most importantly by Roddy. He pretends to be her friend, and yet exploits her terribly. He transmits her every move and every thought back to NTV for editing, without her permission, without her knowledge of his actions.  

Creepily, Roddy is betrayed by the same forces as well.  

At one point in the film he visits his ex-wife, and attempts to have sex with her. Back at the TV studio, Vince doesn’t turn off the feed, however, noting that he wants to wait and see what happens.  

Roddy and his wife end up not sleeping together, but that’s not the point.  The camera is always on -- the feed is always live -- and nobody is going to turn down the experience to vicariously experience someone else’s life…or death.

We are all voyeurs, the film tells us.  And worse, many of us even feel that we have been given permission -- by network programming, YouTube, or other visual presentations -- to be voyeurs.

Without being obvious or sensational, Death Watch also reveals how reality TV can obsess and consume a culture. Bill-boards for the fictional reality show are plastered everywhere, even on city buses, in the film. And before Katherine has even signed the papers to appear on the series, she is confronted with her face on an advertisement.  

Basically, at the most private time of her life -- having just learned of a terminal illness -- Katherine is used without permission to sell a product.

The press soon gathers at her house, and chases after Katherine as if she were Hillary Clinton visiting Chipotle. 

The one thing Katherine desires -- time to think, process, and be alone -- she is explicitly denied. 

But as bad as the press is, we have come to expect its vulture-like behavior. 

By contrast, Roddy’s behavior is a whole dimension worse.  Katherine lets down her guard for him, and he exploits her, over and over, minute-by-minute, day-by-day.  At one point in the film he suffers an extreme punishment for his behavior, and yet we still feel sorry for him. Although he keeps filming, he clearly also grapples with what he is doing.

Indeed, Death Watch is even-handed in approach because it doesn’t make anyone (save for Vince) into a real villain. At one point, Katherine asks the question of Roddy: “which is worse, being disappointed by somebody, or disappointing somebody else?”  

The film’s answer, as is clear from Roddy’s journey, is disappointing someone else. 

In time, Katherine seems to forgive Roddy, but he has a harder time forgiving himself.  He used Katherine, and he was used himself. The worst thing Katherine did was trust another human being.  She has nothing to feel regret over, except the loss of her privacy. Roddy, by comparsion has stolen something that he can never give back.  And the price is his ability to do what he loves, to be a camera-man.

Death Watch has a final surprise in its third act regarding NTV and Katherine’s illness, and it is the thing that exposes, finally, how reality-TV programming plays with people’s lives for no other reason than to entertain viewers.  It’s the final insult to Katherine's journey, and it destroys more than one life.  

The point is that in this future world where death no longer matters, the sanctity of life no longer really matters, either.  A person’s privacy is just a thing that can be manipulated and toyed with.

Although prophetic, Death Watch is not nearly caustic enough in its depiction of reality-TV as we know it in the 21st century. Today, I suggest it would be very difficult to find someone like Katherine, someone who turns down a chance of fame, even if it coincides with her own death.  

We have seen from more than a decade of the form -- and examples like Temptation Island, Joe Millionaire, and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo -- that there is always someone willing to go on camera and look a fool, a narcissist, or a monster.  The fame is apparently worth it, though in Death Watch, Katherine feels quite the opposite. She wants to provide for her second husband, have a chance to say goodbye to her first husband, and die in peace.

How can society deny her that?  

Well, if society can keep people alive through technology, perhaps it believes it has a right to watch people die through technology as well.  One hand giveth; the other taketh away. 

This conceit certainly makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison. Katherine believes she is living the last, precious days of her life.  Roddy thinks, at the same time, that he is crafting great television. He telephones Vincent at one point and tells him how long to hold one shot, and when and where to cut another.  

For him -- at least at first -- it’s all a job. Only later, upon spending time with Katherine, does Roddy start to see that there is more than “entertainment” in her story.

Death Watch gets right the ubiquitous nature of TV advertisements and reality TV, and another early scene seems to forecast writing in the Internet Age. Katherine is a writer of “computer books.”  

This means that she talks to a computer on her TV (named Harriet) and provides a formula for a romance novels. Harriet determines where that formula would sell best (regionally-speaking), and then writes the book for her human masters.  But Harriet is just plugging in templates and formulas.  

If you look at some YA books (and the similarities, say, between the Roswell High books and the Twilight books), you start to understand, perhaps, how authors rely on book-buying data and stats to tell a story pre-sold to be a success. It's not about creativity. It's about shuffling and re-shuffling the same deck.

Although Death Watch is saddled with an abrupt and unsatisfying ending, the film remains a beautifully-shot effort.  As a healthy viewer, you may question Katherine’s final choice, but one must respect her rage-against-the-machine solution to her predicament.  

Her life -- and her death too -- is finally her own, and to the end, she is unwilling to let society take it.  

Rod’s journey is darker, because he has “disappointed” someone else, and he will likely spend the rest of his days trying to make sense of what he did, wh id it, and if he can ever make himself right, and whole again.

Science fiction film fans should go into a screening of Death Watch knowing exactly what to expect. This is a quiet, intimate film about morality in the age of technology. There are no special effects or action scenes to galvanize the attention, or to add pace. The trade-off, of course, is the introduction of a great, memorable character -- Katherine Mortenhoe -- and the director's meditation on the way society tries to package our most intimate moments for mass consumption.

The problem -- as Harriet the Computer might observe -- is that only 37% of the audience would find what happens to Katherine on Death Watch “obscene.”

Movie Trailer: Death Watch (1980)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Flash Gordon GAF Viewmaster

Model Kit of the Week: Flash Gordon and the Martian (1965; Revell)

Board Game of the Week: Flash Gordon (Waddington; 1977)

Action Figures of the Week: Flash Gordon (Mattel)

Pop Art: Flash Gordon (RCA Edition)

Lunch Box of the Week: Flash Gordon (1979)

Theme Song of the Week: Flash Gordon (1979 - 1980)

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Wolf in the Fold" (December 22, 1967)

Stardate: 3614.9

After Scotty (James Doohan) is injured in an accident in Engineering caused by a female technician, Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) recommend therapeutic shore leave for him at Argelius 2, a port of call wherein the people are devoted to a hedonistic life style.  

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) arranges for Scott to meet a gorgeous exotic dancer, Kara (Tania Lemani), to help him recuperate.

However, after leaving a club with Scotty, Kara is discovered murdered, brutally-stabbed to death. 

Worse, Mr. Scott is found nearby, clutching a bloody knife. He claims to have no memory of the events surrounding Kara’s death.

Mr. Hengist (John Fiedler), an administrator on the planet hailing from Rigel, wants to prosecute Scotty for murder. However, Kirk and McCoy want more time to determine what is happened.  Unfortunately, there is a second murder, this time of a female Enterprise technician operating a psycho-tricorder.

Again, Scotty is the prime -- and only -- suspect.

Jaris (Charles Macauley), the prefect of Argelius, believes that his empathic wife, Sybo (Pilar Suerat) can use her unusual abilities to determine Scotty’s innocence or guilt. 

But during a séance, Sybo is murdered, apparently, again by Scotty.

Before her death, Sybo calls out the name “Redjac” and reports the existence of an undying, formless evil that throbs withthe  hatred for all life, but especially a hatred of women.

Scotty’s trial reconvenes aboard the Enterprise, and information from the library computer helps not only to establish his innocence, but the existence of a formless, monstrous spirit that feeds on fear. 

Sybo’s “Redjac” is actually Earth’s Jack the Ripper…

In some ways, “Wolf in the Fold” feels like two Star Trek (1966-1969) distinct episodes.

One episode is a fascinating tale about an amorphous life-form that feeds on fear, and moves from planet to planet, undetected.  

The episode, by Robert Bloch (1917-1994), thus provides the answer to the enduring mystery of Jack the Ripper’s true identity.  The notorious killer is an immortal, un-killable alien being.

The idea of a body-hopping life force feeding on death, terror and violence is a fantastic one, and is an influential concept in Star Trek.  The Enterprise encounters another energy being, one feeding on hate, in “Day of the Dove,” for example.

The episode has some fun touches too, like the "light boxes" in the clubs, which substitute for audience applause, for example.  Some of the photography, particularly during Sybo's seance, is also quite memorable.

And perhaps one of the creepiest moments in all Trek history appears in this episode. Redjac “possesses” the Ship’s Computer, and the briefing room screen displays a weird, Hellish vortex.  

Imagine being dependent on the ship’s computer for your survival.  And then imagine that it is controlled by the science-fiction equivalent of a demon.

Alas, “Wolf in the Fold” is also a second episode, and one that I would prefer not to write about in detail, but must.

Before I commence this discussion, I would like to point out that Star Trek (1966-1969) is a positive force for good in the world, and a series about the value of diversity and of people of different races, genders and ethnicities The series is fifty years old this year, and so far ahead of its time, in so many wonderful, significant, meaningful ways.

And yet, every now and then, Star Trek shows its age. Every now and then an episode comes up which feels very, very dated.

“Wolf in the Fold” is one of those episodes.

First, let’s examine the premise. Kirk and McCoy believe that Scotty could be a violent murderer of women, because of his injury, his concussion.  They believe this is possible, apparently, because the accident in Engineering was caused by a female crew member.  Therefore, he may now hate women and act violently towards them.

In a situation like this, I always like to reverse the sexes and see if the premise holds up with the switcheroo. 

Let’s imagine Uhura is injured by a male officer.  Would we expect her to hate all men?  Would Kirk and McCoy psychoanalyze her, and grow concerned that Uhura is now nursing a hatred for men?


It’s a silly idea, frankly, that anyone with Scotty’s intellect and training would blame an entire sex for an accident (not a deliberate act!) by one member of that sex.  

He would be guilty of believing a stereotype, which is a failure to see the individual, only the group.  And we absolutely know from many examples in  Star Trek that this kind of thinking -- this kind of bigotry -- no longer exists in the 23rd century.

Secondly, let’s assume that Kirk and Bones’ theory about Scotty is applicable. Imagine that he could harbor a hatred for women, because of the accident. If this is the case, why send him off alone with a woman, Kara?  Isn’t that a bit dangerous, for her?  Aren’t Kirk and McCoy encouraging a situation, basically, where he could, in fact, injure her?

Sadly, the stereotypical thinking and attitudes towards women continues throughout the episode.

Consider: Argelius is a world in which male crew-men can go on shore leave, and basically hook-up with the natives, no strings attached.  I’m fine with that.  But what of the female crew members like Uhura and Chapel?  Are there male Argelians available to fulfill their needs?  Why don’t the female crew members get shore leave, and the opportunity to have casual dalliances with men?

Given the portrayal we see on screen, shore leave in “Wolf in the Fold” feels very much like a boy’s club.

It gets worse.

During the (excessively) long trial scene in the Enterprise briefing room, Spock reports that Redjac targets women because females are “more easily and more deeply terrified” than males are. 

My answer? I would like to see the data that supports that statement, please.

Again, let’s drill down on this single factoid for a moment. There have indeed been some studies conducted in which women reported being more scared (of horror movies, rats, spiders, etc.) than males were. 

However -- and importantly -- the same tests also reported that the female were more honest in their responses.

So basically, the women admitted to being frightened, where the men did not.

But again, for argument’s sake, let’s say that Spock’s point is accurate.  We must then ask: is his observation true of all women across the Alpha Quadrant? Are fearful women/brave men a universal constant?  Is it true of Romulan women?  Klingon women? Gorn women?

Like a lot of this episode, the remark doesn’t pass the smell test, or the test of time, actually.

Taken together, the preceding remarks, story-points and concepts lend “Wolf in the Fold” a distinctly sexist air in our current climate.  

Again, context is crucially important when examining any work of art. This episode wasn’t made with a 2016 understanding of the sexes. It was produced with a 1967 understanding.  That is clearly a mitigating factor.

Still, as I’ve written before, Star Trek is usually so forward thinking that even an occasional lapse like this one is disappointing.

And “Wolf in the Fold” has some other groaners too.  

The psycho-tricorder for instance. This is a device that can analyze and diagnose psychological conditions, and a patient’s state of mind at any given moment. 

In other words, one of these sure would have come in handy in “The Enemy Within,” or “Court Martial,” “The Man Trap,” or “Journey to Babel” or…

…basically any episode in which a crew-member or guest aboard the Enterprise may be hiding secrets of a crucial nature.

All Kirk or crew must do is whip out the psycho-tricorder -- a device never again mentioned in the course of the series, if memory serves -- and figure out exactly what is going on.

On a much broader scale, “Wolf in the Fold” has the same kind of shaky premise we saw in the aforementioned “Court Martial” and which recurs in later Trek series episodes such as “A Matter of Perspective” or “Ex Post Facto.”

Basically, who is going to really believe that Scotty (or Kirk, or Riker, or Paris…) is a murderer? Or that they are going to be executed, or jailed, thus making them unavailable for future tales?

Here, the matter is even more basic. Scotty could have committed the murders (possessed by Redjac) and yet still be, technically, innocent, since he was not himself.

Lastly, it's really great to see Scotty (and James Doohan) take center stage for an episode, but "Wolf in the Fold" isn't a great Scotty story, by any means.

Next week: “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

The Films of 2016: The Monster

[Beware of Spoilers]

The Monster (2016) is a new horror movie from director Bryan Bertino, the talent who helmed one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade: The Strangers (2008). Bertino also directed an underrated and highly disturbing found footage horror film from 2014, Mockingbird.

Bertino’s new genre film is something a bit different. Basically, The Monster plays like a modern day The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) episode. It involves basically two characters in one location, a wooded road at night-time, and an element of the supernatural.

In this case, that supernatural element is a ferocious -- and very hungry -- creature.

The Twilight Zone also told very human stories, and The Monster is like the Serling series in that regard as well. Here, an estranged mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballantine) grapple not only with the monster that threatens their existence, but the one that has gotten between them -- alcoholism -- and threatens their lives in a different way.

There are no elaborate special effects in the film, and the monster itself looks less impressive the more often it appears on screen. 

And yet the movie casts a spell.

The Monster is a slow-burn type horror film, and one in which audiences will increasingly invest in the main characters and their dilemma. Many of the moments that mother and daughter share are absolutely heart-breaking. The film only goes off track, a little, in the last act. There, one character’s actions are baffling, and more than that, even useless. The end needed a rewrite to make a final act more meaningful in the overall scheme of things.

In other words, the movie doesn’t precisely have to end on the down-note that it does. Some people might judge the film, therefore, as overly manipulative.

Despite such a misstep, The Monster moves with absolute confidence and with a total mastery of our emotional states. The film is tense and upsetting. It’s the story of two people who have taken a wrong turn in life, and then take a second (and monstrous) wrong turn that, in a way, restores the balance of their relationship.

The Monster is a horror movie on a small, contained scale, and yet by keeping the approach intimate, Bertino masters his material thoroughly.  Rod Serling would have been proud.

“There are lots of things that hide in the woods.”

Young Lizzy (Ballentine) cleans up the family apartment after her mother has had another all-night bender smoking and drinking. She attempts to wake her mother, Kathy (Zoe), because they are supposed to drive to see Lizzy’s father that day.

But Kathy won’t be roused, and sleeps all day. They start out on the trip late, and soon night falls.  On a long, dark, deserted road, Kathy and Lizzy reckon with the crack-up of their relationship, at the same time that it rains heavily.

There is an accident on the road, and it appears that Kathy and Lizzy’s car has struck a wolf.  But when the wolf carcass is examined, a strange fang is pulled from its wounds. The fang looks like it belongs to no known animal.

After Kathy and Lizzy call 911, a tow truck arrives to pull their damaged vehicle to safety. But the dark, strange animal that killed the wolf is still nearby, and attacks the driver, Jesse (Aaron Douglas).

Kathy attempts to encourage Lizzy not to be frightened, but the monster intensifies its attacks. 

After an ambulance arrives, there is another vicious attack, and Kathy realize she is finally going to have to be the mother she has always needed to be, if her daughter is to survive the night.

“We’re on the old road.”

There is hope and sadness aplenty in The Monster, a film that concerns the wreckage of a mother-daughter relationship. A monster has already taken one of them away, in a sense, when the movie starts.  In particular, Kathy is an alcoholic, and we see in brief flashbacks how she is unable to resist or escape the bottle. Lizzy and Kathy fight with one another, and shout with another, and it’s all because Kathy can’t escape from her addiction to become the person that Liz needs her to be.

In a fashion worthy of The Twilight Zone, Kathy is called to overcome one monster so as to face another one, and live-up to her role as parent to Liz.

One of the key strengths of The Monster involves the two lead performances, and the development of the characters. 

Kathy and Liz are both sympathetic and unsympathetic at points, and clearly hoping to “save” their relationship, even if they don’t know how.  Liz has been forced to grow up ahead of her time, and the early, dialogue-less first scenes of the movie chart this fact in a memorable montage. 

In particular, Liz cleans up her Mom’s apartment alone, going through the wreckage or detritus of her life, as Kathy sleeps it off.  On the soundtrack, a country song (“A World So Full of Love”) plays, and the juxtaposition of the lyrics and Liz’s actions is haunting.  The images and song speak of a world in which love is crucially important, and yet, on its own not enough to solve problems, or end suffering.

Kathy loves her daughter, but is a lost soul. We don’t know what it is inside her that makes her susceptible to the demon of alcoholism, but that demon possesses her. There is a brief scene in the film wherein Kathy sits on her apartment porch and tries to resist drinking. She can’t. She goes dumpster diving instead. In one of the film’s most emotional moments, her daughter finds her passed out next to the toilet. Her daughter holds her in her moment of vulnerability. The roles have been reversed. The one who needs care is, instead, providing it. 

So little Kathy is tired of being the “Mom,” and Liz wants to be a good “Mom.” The strange events on the dark road, in the middle of nowhere, allow these two women to re-establish their roles as mother and daughter in a powerful way.

Kathy rallies, and Liz allows herself to be cared, and loved.

My big concern with the movie is simply that I don’t think that the ending is entirely justified. Spoilers ahead, so watch out.  But basically, I don’t believe a sacrifice is called for, given how things play out. I think that with a little more planning, the mother and daughter roles could have been re-established without one person in the relationship giving up everything for the other.  

When one looks at how the monster is fought, and defeated, the preceding sacrifice is unnecessary.  It is, however, emotional.

The Monster succeeds on the basis of its limited location and characters. It depicts a story that feels “true” to the characters as they are presented, and doesn’t find it necessary to include a lot of extraneous bells and whistles.  The monster costume itself isn’t great, though it gets a great opening shot (blurry, in the background, unnoticed).

Finally, as I've noted the ending isn’t everything I hoped it would be.  

But again, I thought back to The Twilight Zone. Special effects weren't the point.  Rather, the stories were about the human condition.

And The Monster is, ironically, the most human of recent horror movies. Approach it on those terms, and you may find it affecting and memorable.